Barbershop Nostalgia

Courtesy: McClatchy-Tribune
Scioli, reflected in a mirror, cuts Chris Van Osten’s hair amid a collection of Bob’s Big Boy figurines.

By Jeremy Roebuck
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Want to tick John Scioli off? Call one of those mahogany-paneled, manicure-offering, $60-shave-and-a-haircut men’s salons a barbershop.

“Any fool can cut hair and overcharge,” the 39-year-old scoffs. “All these guys think they’re doing something new.”

At John’s Old School New Skool Barber Shop in Schwenksville, Pa., the sartorially inclined gent won’t find hot-towel facials, salon-trained stylists, or flat-screen TVs eternally tuned to ESPN.

Instead, Scioli has been churning out pompadours, slicked-back greaser ‘dos, and straight-razor shaves the way your father and grandfather got them for years.

Think less metrosexual, more retrosexual.

In the four years since it opened, Scioli’s operation has grown into something of an oddball, noisy, but beloved neighbor to the Victorian houses and antiques markets lining Main Street.

Courtesy: McClatchy-Tribune
Chris Van Osten waits to have his hair cut, among the Elvis lamps and “H.R. Pufnstuf” memorbilia that sets the feel of the barbershop.

The shop — run by a burly, tattooed bear of a man with a case of Tourette’s that keeps his face in a state of constant twitch and spasm — might seem more at home in Northern Liberties in Philadelphia than this rural enclave roughly 35 miles north.

“It looked like a peaceful place to live,” Scioli said of his choice of locale. “I got sick of city living, and saw there were other weirdos up here, too.”

Amid the clatter of occasional live music and clinking birch-beer bottles, he and his cutting crew shear and shave while doling out a healthy dose of sharp-edged attitude.

Collectibles cover the walls, ranging from midcentury ads for RC Cola and Fudgie Bars to posters of the psychedelic Sid and Marty Krofft 1970s television show “H.R. Pufnstuf” — all mixed in with a smattering of pudgy-faced Bob’s Big Boy figurines. (“There’s something to be said for a fat kid with nice hair,” Scioli joked.)

Customers line up seven to 10 at a time, perusing styles as varied as the “Peter Gunn,” the “Oliver North,” and the “Whiskey Cut,” a short crop on top with straight-razored sides.

At the center of it all stands Scioli, perpetually garbed in a guayabera, Havana straw hat and saddle shoes.

Whizzing vintage clippers in hand, he performs a constant one-man show, ribbing the customer in his 1949 hydraulic chair with as much gusto as he does those waiting for their own shot at a cut and a cutting remark.

His salty humor skewers all ethnicities, religions and political views with equal good-natured jabs that keep his clients laughing, even when they’re the butt of the joke.

“This here’s Nicky Niceteeth,” Scioli said as one frequent client settled into the chair for a touch-up to his coiffed pompadour. “We’ve all got gangly smiles, but this guy’s got the nicest pearly yellows.”

Call it service with a snarl — the type his customers have come to appreciate.

“For some reason I’ve dated a lot of hairstylists,” said Niceteeth, better known as 25-year-old Nick Sosa, a mechanic and bass player in a local band. “But even with the chance at all those free haircuts, I keep coming back here for this.”

To Scioli, the performance is just as much a part of barbering as the cut itself.

Courtesy: McClatchy-Tribune
Scioli gives Ali Sharifi a “Whiskey Cut,” a retro style specialized by the shop.

“Sure, you can give a haircut, talk, and be charming, but you also have to be off-center sometimes,” he said. “I give everyone the same (rotten) service. I think what a lot of people like is that I put them on the spot.”

But his role as the outspoken maestro seems improbable given his early years as a loner teen struggling with Tourette’s.

The son of a high school German teacher and a physician’s assistant, Scioli spent hours as a boy holed up alone in his high school library, poring over magazines and sure of only two things: his future career and his passion for collecting anything from records and old toys to his elders’ sense of style.

“It’s sad when I look back at what a geek I was,” he said. “But I think I knew since third grade that I was going to be a barber. I used to dress up as a barber for Halloween. Who does that?”

As for the obsession with collecting, the signs of its enduring hold are plastered all over Scioli’s walls ­­­— from the countless figurines to his Tom Corbett, Space Cadet lunch box, a vintage treasure from the 1950s TV show that has taken on new cachet since the election of Pennsylvania’s newest governor.

More tchotchkes and castoffs are stored in a back room he has dubbed the “Schwenksville Nostalgia Museum.”

“Where else am I going to work where I come in in the morning and turn on seven Elvis lamps?” asked John “Smiling John” Shilling, a recent addition to Scioli’s staff.

Scioli’s clients have a ragtag assortment of backgrounds and personalities — mechanics, rockers, hipster kids, local executives and even a few misfits, including a customer on a recent visit who repeatedly insisted the government had been injecting him with chemicals in his sleep.

With a draw like that, no matter how many froufrou men’s salons open up around him, Scioli remains confident that a hot shave, a classic cut and a little bit of attitude will never go out of style.

“You can’t just sell a haircut in this economy,” he said. “You’ve got to sell a dream — the nostalgia of it.”